Published in The Alliance Review Feb. 10, 2009
The Civil War’s nearly forgotten nurse addressed attendees of Rodman Public Library’s Uncivil War program Monday evening, the first of three sessions during Black History Month. Washington Township resident Carolyn Caskey regularly portrays Ohio native Mary Ann Bickerdyke, trying to bring Bickerdyke out of the shadow cast by Clara Barton by introducing people to the Ohio native’s great accomplishments in Civil War medicine.
Bickerdyke was born in July 1817 in Knox County. She and her husband, Robert, who was 20 years her senior, had five children, two of whom survived to adulthood. Shortly after they moved to Galesburg, Ill., Robert died, and Bickerdyke turned to medicine to support herself and her two sons.
At a church service at the start of the Civil War, the Rev. Edward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, read a letter from a doctor asking for someone to take supplies to soldiers who were dying of disease before ever entering the fighting. “What man can we send?” he asked, and was greeted by silence until a woman suggested Bickerdyke. “If you’re willing to take care of my boys, I will go,” she said.
Bickerdyke took the supplies to the camp at Cairo, Ill., and when she encountered tents whose smell, dirty straw, fleas, lice and human waste overpowered her, she went straight to work. She asked soldiers for help in exchange for food and got many volunteers. Her persistent sidekick, Andy Sommerville, told her, “You sound like my mother” and said “Good night, Mother,” that first evening, and soldiers ever after called her Mother Bickerdyke.
Bickerdyke operated at first under no government authority. “I was there because it needed to be done.” She said her authority came from the Lord God Almighty.
She attached herself to Gen. U.S. Grant’s army when he moved to Fort Donelson, Tenn., and when she told him she needed access to battlefields and transportation, he wrote a pass allowing her to travel anyplace, anytime, anyhow.
Bickerdyke used many herbs to treat soldiers and made hardtack, a simple cracker made from flour,
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salt and water. If a wounded soldier had trouble eating, she sprinkled cinnamon and whiskey on the hardtack and mixed it with hot water to make a gruel that the soldier could swallow. Bickerdyke was opposed to alcohol and used the whiskey only for medicinal purposes.
Bickerdyke attached herself to Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops after Grant went east to take command of all Northern armies, and she went on the payroll of the U.S. Sanitary Commission to support her boys and to use the money for sick and wounded soldiers. After she dressed down a colonel’s wife whose child was sick, the colonel demanded that Sherman send her away, and Sherman replied, “You’ll have to see Lincoln; she outranks me.”
Bickerdyke carried a lantern while she scoured the battlefield outside Fort Donelson after dark for wounded men, and Col. John Logan sent an aide looking for the looter carrying the light. The aide returned with Bickerdyke in tow, and Bickerdyke said, “Thank you for sending someone out to help me.” She saw that Logan was wounded and replaced his dressing, and they became lifelong friends.
Sherman sent Bickerdyke home after the burning of Atlanta in 1864 as he prepared to march to the sea, promising to send for her when she was needed. He did, and when she disembarked in North Carolina while traveling by boat from the North, she learned the war was over. She saw skeletal ex-prisoners from Andersonville Prison walking around town and turned her attention to them.
Bickerdyke rode in the grand parade in Washington, D.C., at war’s end and took care of overheated veterans. She stayed in the capital for a year, helping men get pensions because she could prove they had been in the army.
She ran a hotel out west for a time, and once George Meade, Sherman and Logan stopped by, and the four enjoyed an evening of reminiscing. She worked at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco and was always invited to Grand Army of the Republic conventions.
To conclude her presentation, Caskey left the first person and told about her visit to Galesburg, where she found Bickerdyke’s tombstone and the statue in front of the courthouse, which bears Sherman’s quote: “She outranks me.”
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